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How Word Detectives solved the mystery of teaching reading from afar

Students participate in Word Detectives, a summer reading program hosted by the Speech-Language and Hearing Center. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

In a normal summer, the kids enrolled in Word Detectives, a month-long reading camp, would meet on Northeastern’s Boston campus to improve their literacy skills. But this summer is anything but normal.

Instead, the team behind Word Detectives moved the program online, with a virtual camp and specialized tutoring.

“For us, as creators and implementers of this program that is so critical to so many kids during the summer, we realized that it is possible to still do this no matter the situation,” says Sarah Young-Hong, the clinic director in Northeastern’s Speech-Language and Hearing Center.

Word Detectives is run by faculty, reading specialists, and speech-language pathology graduate students in the center. The program serves students from second to seventh grade who are reading below grade level, and helps them improve through intensive phonics lessons and reading workshops.

“Our program is multi-layered; we are working with struggling readers to increase reading skills but on top of that, we are layering motivational strategies,” says Elyssa Brand, co-director of Word Detectives.

Word Detectives, a summer reading camp, met entirely online this summer. Teachers and graduate students worked with struggling readers over Zoom. Screenshot courtesy of Word Detectives

Brand says all students experience a summer slide, when they regress over the summer in all subjects, and continuous instruction is especially important for struggling readers. And with the move to online learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the students in the program haven’t had strong instruction since March, she says.

In the spring, Brand and Young-Hong debated if and how they could hold the program this summer. They quickly realized it would be difficult or impossible to maintain safety measures with young kids, but the challenges kids were facing with online learning made it all the more important that they get literacy instruction.

So they concluded that the program was too important not to hold, and after surveying parents, came up with several options for families. They would hold an online version of the program, a month-long virtual camp, and they would offer small-group and one-on-one tutoring.

The next question was: How to get kids access to materials? Normally, Word Detectives uses hands-on activities with things like magnetic tiles. Brand and Young-Hong found ways to recreate things virtually and drove to students’ houses to drop off a package with supplies. 

Teachers and graduate students met virtually ahead of the start of the camp, which ran for four weeks in July, and throughout the program to discuss how things were going and ways to improve.

The program primarily used the Wilson Reading System this summer, which teaches children about word structure and how to attack words they don’t know, and some RAVE-O reading intervention curriculum, which helps students dissect words to better understand their meanings and grammatical functions.

The work can require a lot of concentration so the program has built-in breaks to let kids play and do unrelated activities, Brand says. The breaks also help students stay encouraged to learn and give them the opportunity to connect with other kids who struggle with reading.

“We want to increase their ability to attack challenges, to feel safe in an atmosphere where other kids are like them,” Brand says.

The virtual camp allowed parents to see inside the program and the strides kids made in just a few weeks, and teachers were able to see more directly kids lives outside of school.

“Normally, kids will come in and tell stories about home, but now we were seeing and living with them,” Young-Hong says. “In the past, parents haven’t come in during instructional times but some of the parents were there with their kids and seeing what was happening, and sending messages like ‘Wow I’m impressed with how my daughter is engaging, I didn’t think this would work but it did.’”

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